By James Petras
The struggle within the US power structure between the economic empire builders (EEB) and the civilian militarists/Zioncons over US Middle East and global policy is now out in the open and intensifying.
The EEB now have a politically powerful organizational expression, the Baker Commission (known officially as the Iraq Study Group) led by the formidable former Secretary of State, James Baker. The EEB are backed by a group of bipartisan congressional leaders, sectors of the traditional military elite, a powerful coalition of Texas-based oil and gas groups and sectors of Wall Street financial houses and potentially a large majority of public opinion. Against them are the civilian militarists in the Pentagon, State Department and White House (Rumsfeld, Chaney, Rice, Bolton and Bush), a declining majority of Congressional Democrats and Republicans, the Presidents of the Major Jewish Organizations headed by the America-Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and their influential apparatchiks in the mass media and their numerous ‘grass roots’ political fronts (political action committees).
What is at stake is of fundamental importance to the future of US politics; not only in the Middle East, which is the immediate catalyst for the drawing up of sides, but the entire way in which US policy is formulated and equally important how the US will engage in defending and expanding its global empire.
The Basis of Confrontation
Several factors have converged to precipitate this intra-elite confrontation. First and foremost is the prolonged, costly and un-winnable war in Iraq. The Zioncon-civilian-militarist (ZCCM) policy of colonial invasions and military occupation in pursuit of destroying Israel’s adversaries and enhancing its dominance of the Middle East has weakened the US efforts to sustain its global dominance. The vast absorption of military resources, troops, reserves and logistical support systems in pursuit of a prolonged guerrilla war without end, has severely weakened Washington’s capacity to apply military force to intimidate and enforce or intervene in other strategic regions or countries of conflict. The military losses in Iraq have undermined domestic public support for present and future overseas military interventions in support of empire building. The sustained military and political resistance to the vast US military occupation army has lowered the intimidation factor so necessary in sustaining imperial diplomacy. In a word, the Iraq war has become a major impediment to empire building, its defense and its domestic economic and political support, a principal motivating factor in the crystallization of the Baker Commission.
Secondly the ZCCM policy of promoting Israel’s Middle East supremacy is enormously damaging to some of the biggest petroleum and financial institutions in the US. At a time when the headlines of the major financial press read "seas of cash flooding into the Gulf brings an explosion of investment companies", "Dubai plans fund to tap Gulf liquidity" and "Global insurers see rich seam to be mined in Saudi Arabia",(Financial Times Oct 19, 2006 p.4), the White House and Pentagon plot new highly destabilizing military confrontations with Syria and Iran, potentially wrecking hundreds of billions of dollars in lucrative investments, contracts and returns. The entire Zioncon political apparatus is the only major force in the US consistently pushing for Congressional and Executive military action jeopardizing the potential profits of major US petroleum, investment banking, insurance and other key sectors of the US global economic elite. The paradox is that many of the same wealthy investment bankers eager to tap into the Middle East bonanza are the same groups, which finance the AIPAC-Zioncon warmongers. This raises concerns of cross pressures, double allegiances, tribal loyalties and dollar signs!
From the perspective of defending US global interests, being tied down militarily in Iraq in a long-term, large-scale engagement is not only counterproductive but has created a political crisis. The domestic consensus among the political elite concerning the compatibility of imperialism and democracy is threatened with being torn asunder to sustain the war. The ZCCM power bloc increasingly resorts to authoritarian war powers totally at variance with the existing constitutional order peeling layers of legitimacy from the existing political system.
The Baker Commission is attempting to reassert the supremacy of the market over the military in defining the driving forces of empire building, that is, the economic interests of US petrol and finance capital over Israeli military dominance in shaping US Middle East interests.
For economic determinists, for whom foreign policy is simply the unmediated result of powerful economic interests, the failure of the US government to scuttle a mendicant, miniscule militarist state forever milking the US Treasury in favor of the most powerful US energy companies pursuing multi-billion dollar deals with resource-rich free-market Arab-Muslim countries is an inexplicable mystery. Inexplicable because these ‘economic determinists’ are either willfully blind or they deliberately choose to ignore the political power of the ZCCM power configuration in overriding US global economic interests. To continue with the current state of affairs is to deepen the political crisis of empire – both domestically and internationally – and to lose out on the greatest economic opportunities in the global economy.
The Empire Strikes Back
The relative passivity and/or impotence of the US ‘empire firsters’, in relation to the ZCCM, in the run up to the Iraq invasion can be attributed to several factors. In the first place there is the extraordinary systematic and well-organized penetration of the Bush Administration by the ZCCM. Armed with a ‘mission’, an intense and highly motivated belief in military action as the supreme arbiter of imperial expansion, the civilian militarists joined forces with the Zioncons who embraced with equal zeal their mission of using US military power to enhance Israeli dominance in the Middle East as the over-riding priority in US foreign policy.
During a long march through the institutions over the previous 25 years, the ZCCM was able to penetrate and take over all the key policy positions in the Pentagon, State Department and White House. While there were scattered objections by marginal voices – namely retired military officials, traditional conservatives, pacifists and leftists, few were able or willing to point their finger at the Zioncon power configuration especially after 9/11. More important, the economic empire builders lacked an alternative political leadership and bought into the civilian militarists ‘War on Terror’ as a necessary security strategy and the Pentagon-Zioncon claim that the Iraq invasion would result in a quick and complete victory (with plenty of benefits for all). The economic empire builders, accustomed to dealing with well-informed bright and capable pro-Israel colleagues in the financial world, assumed that their counterpart political-military strategists were equally competent in ‘advising and directing’ imperial politics. What the economic elite did not foresee was the fact that the Zioncon policy-makers did not share their political priorities: Zioncon policy was not directed toward creating a stable regime friendly to US political-economic interests but toward physically destroying any Arab or Muslim country capable of challenging Israeli domination of the region. Destroying Iraq for Greater Israeli-US dominance meant the dismembering of the Iraqi Republic, the imposition of a brutal US colonial regime and the gradual introduction of ethnically-cleansed tribal client regimes which would be subject to Israel interests and open to foreign oil companies. The promise of the latter was a ‘sweetener’ thrown in to secure big oil support or neutrality for the pro-Israeli (Israel-centered) policy.
While the ZCCM succeeded in destroying Iraq as a viable state and economy, thus accomplishing the Israeli goals of the war, the economic empire-builders witnessed the complete and total unraveling of all the political-economic payoffs promised by the Zioncons. The invasion led to prolonged peoples guerrilla war. The Zionist-designed destruction of the Iraqi state institutions (with Paul Bremer’s dismissing all Iraqi state employees, officials and military personnel) led to hundreds of thousands of former trained and armed ex-soldiers, officers and police joining the armed resistance. Regional instability and hostility to US economic interests multiplied. As it became transparent throughout the Middle East and elsewhere that the ZCCM were masters of US Middle East policy and that Washington’s priority was fighting Israel’s wars, the US became a pariah in the Middle East, like its Israeli partner.
The misplaced confidence of a convergence of interests between the economic empire builders and the ZCCM soon gave way as the political and economic costs began to weigh on the minds of the ideologues and subsequently the political leaders of the economic elite. Numerous scatter-shot responses weakened the most vulnerable and obvious targets among the Zioncons. Initially it was the traditional conservatives who sounded the nationalist alarm, pointing to the Israel-Firsters’ takeover of US policy in the interest of Israel. A much weaker, but pointed, criticism of the Israeli lobby appeared in the web pages of individual leftist writers. Former intelligence, FBI officials and retired colonels and generals with continued ties to their agencies attacked the Zioncons, referred to as ‘neo-cons’, for misleading and falsifying data in the run-up to the war. Key Israeli operatives in top echelons of the Pentagon (Wolfowitz and Feith) withdrew from office. The FBI arrested two leading members of AIPAC for spying for Israel. US public opinion, thanks to the internet and alternative sources of information and despite the massive pro-Israel bias in the corporate media, registered a near majority view that the Iraq invasion was in Israel’s, not US, interests. Leading civilian militarists, Rumsfeld and Chaney, became the most disliked politicians in the Administrations.
Despite these setbacks in personnel, the ZCCM apparatus remained intact. AIPAC still drew raves from all the leading Congress members, Party and Executive officials at their yearly conference. Congress still provided near unanimous support for the Israel invasion of Lebanon, approval for over $3 billion dollars (the annual dole) to Israel, and enthusiastically backed Israel’s starvation blockade of the democratically elected Palestinian government in Gaza. Rumsfeld, Chaney, Bush, Rice and the entire leadership of the Presidents of the Major Jewish Organizations of America continued to pursue the ‘war to victory’ in Iraq and new wars strategies against Iran, Syria and elsewhere, even as Bush’s popularity plummeted, the death toll among US soldiers surpassed 3000 and US economic weaknesses became more apparent.
The widespread, dispersed and muted criticism of the economic elite finally crystallized, particularly among the economic empire-builders, embodied in James Baker, lifetime confidant of the Bush family and ‘man of confidence’ in US-Middle East financial and petroleum circles.
The Baker Panel
The strength of the Zioncon power configuration is evident even in the manner and composition as well as the deliberations of the panel, which James Baker III has formed to present alternatives to current US policy in the Middle East. Baker’s panel is bipartisan, including former Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders, CIA directors, a retired Supreme Court Justice, an ex-Secretary of Defense and other establishment notables. Secondly the panel does not include a single Zioncon ideologue, retired Bush Jr. administration official or allied Congressperson, though some are sprinkled among the scores of ‘experts’ involved in the four working groups. Baker’s tactic is to be inclusive enough to represent various strands of elite opinion to buttress its authority when its report is presented to the President, Congress and the public, and selective to minimize the influence of the ‘Israel Firsters’ and the ‘war to military victory’ crowd. Thirdly the Baker Commission has as its strategic goal the subordination of military policy to economic empire building, rather than the current approach of harnessing economic policy to military conquests and Zioncon ideological missions. What this means in practical terms is giving greater room for diplomacy, heterodox political alliances based on common economic interests and pursuit of lucrative economic contracts and agreements with Arab and Muslim nations. Fourthly, the Baker Commission has not and will not directly attack the Zioncon power structure or even question the civilian militarists who run the Bush War Machine. Instead the panel will de facto set in notion a series of alternative policies which implicitly point to a new political administration – one which is free of the Israeli stranglehold on Washington’s Middle East policy and beholden first and foremost to US empire building without the encumbrances of Israel’s regional power grabs.
The tactic of ignoring the Zioncon power bloc while building an alternative is a delicate operation given the power of the Jewish lobbies to manipulate the ‘anti-Israel’, ‘anti-Semite’ labeling technique amplified by its Congressional and media acolytes. Hence the Baker Commission will reiterate the ritual affirmation of support for Israel’s security and massive foreign aid package, while emphasizing greater pressure on Israel to resolve the Palestinian issue. How far Baker will move on the Palestinian issue depends on how much legitimacy he feels the Commission has to withstand a Zioncon-orchestrated calumny campaign. Will the Abe Foxmans of the ADL have the gall to accuse a bipartisan, gold ribbon establishment elite of being anti-Semite for not fighting Israel’s wars and not backing Israel’s policy of ethnic cleansing?
If Baker has moved methodically and prudently toward a re-orientation of US policy from the line pushed by the ZCCM, he has done so by carefully organizing an army of researchers, experts and notables whose reports will be distilled into a series of policy proposals which will argue for a ‘winning empire-building strategy’ as opposed to the current impasse and decline of empire. Baker knows first hand the power of the Zioncon configuration and therefore it is highly unlikely that he will openly attribute the current disastrous course of policy to the subordination of US policy to the interests of the State of Israel. Instead he has established an organizational apparatus whose composition in fact excludes the Zioncons, and therefore re-establishes US imperial interests as the centerpiece of policy-making. Likewise Baker will not directly confront Rumsfeld, Chaney, Rice, Elliot Abrams and the other civilian-militarists in power; instead he will present a series of findings and proposals, which will be incompatible with their tenure in office. Baker is counting on the growing majority of Republican and Democratic Congress-members questioning current policy, a shift in the mass media, growing dissent among active Generals, career State Department and Pentagon officials, sectors of the economic elite and massive repudiation by public opinion to force the Rumsfeld-Hadley-Abrams power center out of office and their replacement by officials and advisers more open to a new approach to the Middle East.
If it is true that the primary purpose of the Baker Commission is to take back US Middle East policy-making from the ‘Israel Firsters’ and secondly to subordinate military approaches to empire building to market interests, the question arises as to what strategic policies, tactical alliances, regional realignments and specific proposals dealing with the US military presence in Iraq Baker will propose?
The Baker Plan
First and foremost it should be understood that Baker’s perspective is how to protect US empire building on a global scale, and in particular defend and expand US imperial interests in the Middle East. Secondly he is concerned with a restoration of US military interventionist capability in the face of the precipitous losses in personnel and morale resulting from the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Thirdly Baker is concerned with limiting the political-economic fallout of any reduction in US military presence in Iraq on strategic client states in the region. Fourthly he seeks to build new tactical relations with current adversaries without alienating Israel and subsequently its vociferous and aggressive agents in the US.
Within these parameters Baker has several lines of policy which are open and being explored.
The Baker Options
In all likelihood, Baker’s Panel will not recommend a phased withdrawal of US troops unless there is a collapse of the Iraqi army and police. Instead he will press for a policy of including the main combatants or insurgents (including the Baathists and pro-Iranians) in a ‘power-sharing’ scheme in the hope that the resistance can be fragmented, isolated and eventually weakened. This will be packaged as a ‘new direction’. To that end Baker will propose negotiations with Iran and Syria in order to secure their influence in pressuring their allies in Iraq to join in the power-sharing scheme. In order to enter into discussion with Iran and Syria and to persuade them to cut off military support for the Iraqi resistance, he will have to offer some sort of peaceful coexistence, in effect dropping the threats of military intervention, economic sanctions and the funding of CIA-sponsored terrorist groups. Clearly Iran and Syria will not co-operate if Washington pursues the Zioncon militarist agenda of confrontation. Baker knows that within the Iranian power structure, there are liberal technocrats, wealthy business leaders, opportunistic clerics, corrupt state officials in the oil and gas sector and leading politicians who are open to negotiating with the US and eager to cut a deal with Washington, even at the expense of their Iraqi Shia colleagues – if Washington makes an offer of power-sharing in Iraq, drops its belligerent posturing and frees itself of the Zioncon policy of Israeli regional supremacy. Syria and Iran have a track record of collaborating with Washington in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq and even afterward, sharing intelligence and subsequently supporting the US-orchestrated electoral process. That important sectors of the Iraqi Shia resistance look to Iran for material and moral support is unquestionable; that they would abide by a US-Iranian agreement which in effect retains US military presence and its current puppets is doubtful. Baker may underestimate the degree of autonomy, which the local Shia resistance has secured. A US-Iranian-Syrian deal would also exclude the important role that the non-Shia (Sunnis, Baathists and others) resistance plays in the war.
The ‘Yugoslav Solution’, namely the breakup of the Iraqi Republic into client mini-states (what the Zioncons like Leslie Gelb, former President of the Council on Foreign Relations have advocated as a ‘Tri-State Solution’) is an option, which the Baker Commission is surely considering. This is the favored plan of the Democratic Party Hawks, like Hilary Clinton, Charles Schumer and Joseph Biden. This would involve the division of Iraq into a series of mini-fiefdoms run by US-Israeli clients: Kurds in the North, Sunni tribal leaders in the Center-West and a Shia South with Baghdad starved into submission. This would be a complicated, violent and difficult scheme to execute because it depends on massive ethnic cleansing, uprooting millions. Moreover the highly unequal geographical distribution of natural resources would exclude the most combative group – the Sunnis from the most lucrative sources of income.
The Tri-State Solution would require the break up of the current army and its reorganization along ethnic-religious lines at a time of highly volatile military conflict and with virtually no leadership with any standing in the resistance willing to settle for an impoverished fragment of a hitherto unified secular state. Apart from Iraqi tribal leaders, expatriate clients and the Kurds, the process of national-deconstruction would increase conflict, not ameliorate it. The positive side would be the strong support, which this proposal would receive from Israel and thus the entire Jewish Lobby and its clients –The US Congress and White House.
Almost without exception, Israel’s ideological soldiers have taken to the opinion columns of all the major newspapers, television and radio shows (as self-reputed Middle East experts) to promote the breaking up of Iraq into mini-states and to pursue the killing fields beyond the over 650,000 slaughtered Iraqi civilians and 3,000 dead US soldiers. One only has to read the obscene op-ed articles which dominate the October 26, 2006 issue of the Financial Times to capture this unrelenting campaign to totally obliterate Iraq from the map and from Israel’s cross hairs (see Michael Rubin’s “Why Withdrawal from Iraq is the Worst Option”, Lawrence Freedman’s “America Must Learn to have Patience”, Richard Betts’ “Look to Bosnia, not Vietnam, for a Realistic Solution” Financial Times, October 26, 2006 page 13). Needless to say, with Jews representing less than 0.5% of US armed forces personnel and an even far smaller proportion being active soldiers on the front lines and with virtually none of the prominent Zioncon ideologues having children or grandchildren among the US occupation troops facing hostile Iraqi resistance, it is easy for the Rubins and Freedmans of the US and UK to preach ‘patience’ for an endless war.
Baker has to face up to a full-scale ideological offensive by Israel’s US-based ideological soldiers, precisely as almost everyone else is turning against the war, and ever more Americans find the courage to point a finger of responsibility at the Jewish Lobby. Oblivious to their isolation among Americans concerned with the useless loss of American lives and limbs, the Israel-Firsters are focusing all their attention on influencing or neutralizing the recommendations, which come out of the Baker Commission. The Zioncons follow the British imperial dictum: Rule via unending war or ruin through tribal/ethnic mini-states.
Since serious diplomatic openings to Syria and Iran, which Baker has already suggested (“politics is about talking to your enemies”), are highly unlikely given the current direction of White House policy and given the lack of an Iraqi leader with any following willing to carve up the country, the Baker Panel may be inclined to pay lip-service to a proposal for a gradual ‘redeployment’, the gradual reduction of US combat troops from frontline positions. This may be making a virtue of necessity, as the US Generals in Iraq have stated, the US cannot long sustain 140,000 occupation troops. The ‘redeployment strategy’ however is not a strategy for withdrawal but a method of co-opting Democratic support for the continuation of the war into 2008, the Presidential election year- especially in light of Republican losses in Congress and the Senate. (Leading members of the Democratic Party, like Clinton, Biden and Schumer want to send even more troops to Iraq!) The lowering of US troop strength in the absence of a political power-sharing deal with the local insurgents and Iran however is likely to increase the likelihood of regime fragility and greater defections/infiltration of the US-directed ‘Iraqi’ Army. A US countdown will increase the likelihood of ‘coalition’ partners following suit even earlier and withdrawing their troops even before the Americans. Already the top British Army General Richard Dannatt took the unprecedented stand of publicly voicing his dissent from Prime Minister Blair’s support for the war, stating that the presence of coalition troops only ‘exacerbates the security problem in Iraq (Daily Mail (London), Oct 12, 2006).
The Baker Commission’s task of finding ‘new policies’ to contain the effects of the Iraq invasion are incompatible with the increasingly belligerent Middle East policy pursued by the Bush White House and their Zioncon supporters. Baker cannot avoid challenging the Zioncon Middle East policy if he is to stabilize Iraq: he needs Iranian and Syrian co-operation to co-opt insurgents and/or subdivide Iraq. No amount of clever maneuvering, at which Baker excels (as witnessed by his ‘smart moves’ in the stolen election in Florida 2000), can avoid the hard realities of a losing regional war, in which the US is playing with an ever-weaker hand of cards. At some point, as the US debacle deepens and US public disapproval of Bush’s handling of the invasion exceeds its current 62% and as the resistance to occupation itself grows and turns even bloodier, as the casualties and deaths of Americans climb by the hundreds each month, as the ‘civil war’ in Iraq totally undermines all government authority, as one US client replaces another and most of all as popular rebellion threatens the rule of the US strategic assets in the regions (like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt), then and only then in the name of the empire, of the free market and of oil will Baker be forced to turn against the Zioncon-militarists architects of Middle East policy and call for an accelerated withdrawal.
Needless to say US public opinion is running far ahead of any elite-designed ‘new course’. Fifty percent of Americans between 18-29 believe that ‘the work of the Israel Lobby in Congress and the Bush Administration has been a key factor for going to war with Iraq and now confronting Iran’. Over 52% of US liberals hold similar beliefs.
The elite divisions in an around the Administration are coming to the fore: Alberto Fernandez, Director of Public Diplomacy at the State Department Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs publicly denounced US ‘arrogance and stupidity in Iraq’ right after Bush came out for ‘staying the course’. Richard Armitage, Deputy Secretary of State from 2001-2005, came out for a ‘phased withdrawal of US forces in Iraq’.
As the Zioncon-civilian-militarists hunker down in their White House situation rooms and among their moneyed backers, as Baker’s Iraq Study Group grope for ‘proposals’ without interlocutors in the President’s office and without followers in the America public, it is clear that in the absence of any consequential withdrawal of US troops, the wounds of war will fester and spread from the battle fronts of Baghdad to the streets of America. Only a catastrophic defeat in the Middle East will move us to a new course, out of Iraq, at peace with Iran and most of all out of the stranglehold of the Israel Lobby albatross.
-James Petras is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York. He’s a noted academic figure on the US Left and a well-respected Latin American expert and longtime chronicler of the region’s popular struggles.